Subversive Masculinity

Nov 04, 1999 |Sarah E. Hinlicky

Subversive Virginity told us all about the power of female purity. Now it's the guys' turn. Sarah's at it again, stirring up controversy in all the right places.

Some things in life that are better defined by examples than formulas. Masculinity is one of them.

Whenever I've attempted a dictionary-precise definition of masculinity, I've always tripped myself up in endless qualifications and asides. So now instead I collect little anecdotes to illustrate the concept to my liking. Here is one of my favorites. One weekend last year I was at a well-known dance club in New York's Village with a girl friend from college. Two guys I knew from the area were escorting us; we'll call them Timothy and Titus. At some point well into the evening, while we were jumping and jiving in the middle of the dance floor, a drunken stranger tried to, well, grope me.

I wasted no time scooting over to the other side of the circle, which naturally raised the boys' curiosity. I explained myself. Titus promptly responded, "Do you want us to take him outside and beat him up for you? I've always wanted to be able to defend a woman like that."

The punishment hardly fit the crime, so I declined his offer. But my friend and I were wildly impressed. Neither of us in our lives had met a guy willing to do that for us. What was more, Timothy was the one hoping for a romantic entanglement, not Titus, so the latter stood nothing to gain for his trouble. The story passed among my friends in short order and every last one of them hinted, none too subtly, that they would sure like to meet this man.

Maybe it is embarassingly retrograde to equate masculinity with a proposal of physical aggression to solve a social infelicity. It would be unwise, though, to turn a blind eye to the enthusiastic reception with which this offer met among the women I know. Unwise also to ignore the fact that this man had made it to his single mid-20s with his sexual virtue still intact. I had always known that female chastity and girl power went hand in hand. After this incident I began to realize that male chastity and a compelling, attractive masculinity weren't antithetical, either.

Of course, try telling that to a typical American teenage male, and your pains will be met with laughter at best, if not outright derision. The statistic is appalling: by the age of 19 years, 85 percent of American men have had sex.This statistic and others are taken from the research of the Alan Guttmacher Institute Thirty percent will have done so by the age of 15, half by the age of 17. It is reasonable to assume that these sexually active young men are not terribly fearful about the state of their masculinity. On the whole, they are considerably more fearful of something else. The number one reason for not having sex among 16- to 21-year-olds is fear of disease (shortly followed by the "not ready" reason — a dangerous rationale that can reverse itself in a matter of seconds).

Fear of disease isn't a very good reason, though, and ultimately not very convincing. For instance, I had a conversation this past summer with my little brother, who is actually only little to me in terms of age — otherwise he's about a foot taller than I am. Our conversation was about the two most important topics in the world, religion and sex. My brother was telling me that he insists on practicing the first now, but planned to save the latter for marriage. I agreed it was a good policy.

Then he mentioned that he was kind of amazed that his friends didn't feel the same way. After all, he said, there's such a high risk of pregnancy and disease. That's when I started to get uneasy. The thing of it is, I have known an awful lot of guys who have long since traded in the V card (so to speak) and no such horrible fate has descended upon them. Of all the people I have known who haven't waited, only the tiniest fraction of them has had to deal with either pregnancy or disease. Most suffer little apparent harm, some hurt maybe when the relationship ends, but new love does a nice job of covering up old pain. An ethic based on the fear of traumatic physical consequences will not last very long in the face of a few countervailing examples.

My brother and I ended up agreeing that there had to be more to it than that. God's law just couldn't be so arbitrary, based on a few statistical anomalies that at best work by negative reinforcement and at worst send the persons concerned to the drugstore for not-so-reliable supplies. There had to be some positive content to the "thou shalt not." The positive content is bound to be more persuasive than its negative counterpart, but ironically it isn't mentioned nearly as often, to the detriment of struggling young men.

Case in point. There was a guy I knew in college whom several of us half-jokingly called the "Ungracious Virgin." He was holding out because he knew it was right according to his so-called "Sunday school morality." All the same, he resented his childish morality and the God who gave it every step of the way, and so he never matured in his understanding of the law. His fear was of the destructive, not instructive, kind, and he deserves better. So for his sake and my brother's I have been trying, a little paradoxically as a woman, to work my way through the "problem" (some might say oxymoron) of male virginity.

For starters, it must be said that a healthy ethic of fear has its place. But if the fear tactic is to be employed at all, the emphasis ought to shift to the bad impact that premarital sex, sometimes even with the fiancee, has on marriages. I've been absolutely staggered to hear one man after another express excruciating regret over his fast and loose past once he's met the woman of his dreams. The simple (and often denied) fact of the matter is that sexual intercourse binds man to woman, and becoming unbound again is no more possible for the man than it is for the woman. Man ends up carrying with him to the binding vows of marriage all the other people he's been bound to before.

Worse yet, it is widely agreed that for men especially sexual memories remain vivid for a very, very long time, regardless of one's marital status. This will not appear to be much of a problem to the man who says he expects very little of love and even less of marriage. But that is a shaky and shallow excuse.

It's funny how the idea of "the One" captivates everybody, even the skeptics who try most vehemently to deny it. I'm sure we all have seen a hardened cynic reduced to a state of embarassing, quivering, sentimental infatuation and chuckled to ourselves at the irony of it all. Most of the non-V guys I know (all of them, perhaps) still aspire to some kind of everlasting love, even if they reject the "institution" of marriage on principle, and keep looking, however doubtfully, for the one great love of their lives. Meanwhile, their lifestyles methodically sabotage their hopes and dreams. Marriage promises the love that is so ardently desired by men, but conditionally — conditioned upon faithfulness not just during marriage but before it too.

The logical question is, then, if men want this kind of love, why do they jeopardize it by messing around so much? I, for one, am not at all persuaded by the line of argument that claims guys are more compelled by their hormones to promiscuity than women are. Whoever made that claim obviously did not know any women very well and vastly underestimated the power of sublimation for men and women alike.

I think there's a little more credence to the claim that men are not, as a rule, told by their societies that their own virginity is worth preserving. Generally speaking, cultures have always been more interested in female chastity than its male counterpart. It may not be particularly fair, but it does make sense; after all, women are the ones carrying the babies, and until very recently there was no foolproof way to verify the father's identity. For our own culture, where the stigma of promiscuity has nearly disappeared and the attendant problems are treatable if not curable, I'd like to place blame on one specific person. And the winner is none other than Hugh Hefner.

However it actually developed, and whatever latent social impulses it picked up on, in the final analysis little has been so explicitly destructive of male chastity in the past thirty years or so than the Playboy philosophy. I would venture to guess that it has been altogether more destructive for men than even the worst kind of feminism has been for women. The message is simple and seductive, quietly pervading the national male consciousness. Its veneer of respectability makes it particularly alluring; the smooth Playboy lifestyle isn't crass like Hustler, for heaven's sake, and the magazine always manages to have the best celebrity interviews. Very clever.

Even if they resist it or resent it, even if they never let their eyes pass across a single issue, American men know that they are being pressured to score as much as possible. The ideal foisted on them is one of suave promiscuity, backed up by a blandly materialistic worldview. The trap is baited with money. It is reinforced by all the things guys are likely to get interested in: sports, vehicles and fraternities. The lure of luxury effortlessly translates into the lure of womanflesh. One kind of lifestyle naturally implies the other. The materialism of it allows men to shut down their hearts without even noticing.

And that is where I see the most serious destruction. For every baby born out of wedlock and every instance of STD, there must be ten times as many men who have abandoned their claims to soul and spirit. A woman may suffer more visibly from promiscuity in the social and physical penalties she pays. But at the same time, if I may make such a sweeping gen(d)eralization, a woman will stay attuned to her soul and hang on to her heart no matter how damaged they get. Whereas a man, it seems to me, can much more easily ignore that part of his being if not lose it altogether.

Since I started thinking hard about this issue, I've been paying close attention to the non-V 20-something men I know. Once I started looking, I was surprised by what I found. I saw imperfectly concealed sadness, the eyes of little boys who had slept their way out of childhood and family, who never found a way into a new family with children of their own to reclaim the innocence that they'd had to forsake. I saw these men looking at virgin women with envy — not lust! — at what these lucky girls still had: not a sexual status, but a lightness of heart that is the companion of sexual innocence.

Some of these men, I think, hoped to recover the lightheartedness from sheer proximity to virgin women, even while they despaired of ever deserving such a woman for themselves. At other times, their own suppressed despair prompted them to turn on their chaste buddies, unconsciously harassing them into submission (misery loves company). In my own personal encounters with these men, I have often had the startling feeling of being a lot more grown up than they were. Their post-chaste problem refuses to be ignored. Sexuality grips the imagination so because life and death are wrapped up in it. Rightly fulfilled, it creates humanity in both the lovers and their children. Abused, it kills not only physically but spiritually as well.

And now look at the fallout. These poor men (yes, please pity them; we are a people of repentance and forgiveness) who bought into the Hefner philosophy were gypped out of their manhood. No one ever taught them the meaning of masculinity. No one ever challenged their foolish, boyish ways and forced them to prove that they were really men. No one even cared if they grew up to be men at all. At best they sensed a choice between two false models: one in which manhood was defined by aggressive sexual behavior, high income and mood-altering substances, the other in which anything stereotypically male (strength, protectiveness, daring, competitiveness, authority) has been deemed rude, crude and socially unacceptable. Given that the later is more of a non-option than anything else, it's not surprising that most men have gone for the former, even if they have modified it to fit some inkling of morality they may have ("it's okay if she says so," "it's okay if I love her," etc.). I even wonder if the rise of male homosexual activity in our country isn't somehow linked to a search for real manhood and real danger.

It would help to sort out from the usual cliches about "men-and-sex vs. women-and-love" the genuine intuition about what makes male sexuality distinctly male. Everyone has heard the cliches that say, when it comes to sexual retationships, women focus on the intimacy part and men focus on the physical part. But what really makes male sexuality distinctly male? Maybe it can be stated like this. Female sexuality is specific. Women rarely want sex-in-general: their passion is focused on one with whom the sex is desired. Commitment is inherent in female sexuality, no doubt in large part for biological reasons. The question for women is who the lucky winner will be. And the problem is avoiding bad or too early or serial commitments. But male sexuality isn't like that, perhaps again for biological reasons. It is naturally unfocused and amorphous. It is a challenge for men to focus desire onto one person, one woman, one life partner. Herein the culmination of sexual adulthood for men is found. If men engage in too-early-sex or pre-wife promiscuity, not only is true sexual adulthood subverted, but a crucial challenge to the man — an essential test of his masculinity — is lost or failed, all too often in the supposed pursuit of masculinity itself. Promiscuity undermines masculinity. Fatherhood perfects it.

But if this challenge to men is going to stand, we as a culture have to stop being afraid of masculinity. Certainly we must condemn that which is bad or perverted masculinity (machismo, for instance) but we dare not lose the good and true masculinity along with it. My family has a story that illustrates this beautifully. Many many years ago when my great-grandparents were first married (in the 1920s or '30s) they got into an awful fight. My great-grandpa lost his temper and hit my great-grandma for the first time ever. With that the fight ended, because my great-grandma turned away and refused to speak to her husband for the next three days. Finally, on the third day, he got down on his knees before her and begged for her forgiveness, which she granted, and he never hit her again.

In some ways it is a shocking story — I certainly was shocked the first time I heard it. But look at what is going on under the surface. This working-class Christian man learned for himself that violence towards his own wife was a sign of weakness and not strength, infidelity and not marital prerogative. As her husband he was called to serve and protect her, not dominate and hurt her. And he learned powerfully the depth of her love and faithfulness towards him because she was willing to forgive an ugly sin when he came to her in repentance. My great-grandfather was a physically powerful man, but through that story we have always understood that his greatest strength was in his humble apology.

The time has come to reconnect masculinity and morality. They have been severed from one another far too long. Morality is never persuasive until you can show what it's for. It has to point to something higher and better or else it becomes sheer social utility. If women should be aiming for a "cartel of virtue" (to use Wendy Shalit's words), then men, as a whole and not just in tiny pockets, should aim for an "alliance of valor." Valor is the marriage of masculinity and morality, the cultivation of the highest and best way for men. Giving in to lust and money and cultural pressures is just so easy. Winning the heart of a good woman, raising a child to love and fear the Lord, and contributing to a worthy vocation are not so easy. But they are the signs of a real man.

Copyright 1999 Sarah E. Hinlicky. All rights reserved.

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